Preparing for urban operations
Without any significant combat experience since 1979, some analysts have cast doubt on the ability for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to conduct large-scale military operations. How is China thus learning from recent experiences around the globe to inform future urban operations?
Indeed, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated how a military that has cut its teeth on recent multi-terrain conflicts such as Syria, the Donbas and Georgia can nevertheless fail in the grander and tougher concepts of joint-all domain warfare, C4 and logistics.
The Russian invasion is an important case study for the CCP. At its core, it evidences the challenges in overcoming distributed lethality (reference the thousands of Javelins and Stingers distributed to SOF teams and irregular units across the country), tying down population centres (reference the ongoing insurgency in Zaporizhia) and the need to build robust logistics and communications architecture (reference the advance of Ukrainian forces to Russian ground lines of communication east of Kharkiv).
The sobering truth thus emerges that even militaries supposedly adept in irregular warfare can still fail.
In a recent report published by the Institute for the Study of War titled The PLA’s evolving outlook on urban warfare, Elsa Kania and Ian McCaslin identify how the Chinese perception toward urban warfare has been shaped by their observation of recent conflicts thus enabling them to refine their doctrine without combat experience.
According to the pair, the PLA are by no means ignorant of the incredible difficulties in planning and executing urban warfare – noting that Chinese doctrine perceives urban operations like “battling rats in a China shop”.
“The complex environment allows adversary combatants to hide among civilians and creates high risks for collateral damage. Fighting in urban terrain inherently benefits defenders or insurgents who operate asymmetrically or can exploit an opponent’s aversion to causing collateral damage,” the pair contend.
Such considerations are particularly evidenced in Taiwan, the pair note, with 90 per cent of the country’s population living in urban centres.
Though, the Chinese Communist Party has a haphazard relationship with urban warfighting. Citing the capture of the city of Swatow during the Chinese Civil War, CCP forces were later ejected “after occupying it for only six days” after which “deaths and desertions had reduced the force by nearly two-thirds.”
China’s poor history with urban warfighting continued during the invasion of Vietnam, where the pair illuminates how the difficulties of fighting in cities saw Chinese soldiers shoot unarmed civilians, “contributing to an intense hatred toward China that persisted for decades”.
Acknowledging the lack of operational experience in urban operations, combined with a poor history of urban performance, the pair notes that the PLA looks overseas to inform their urban warfighting doctrine.
“Often, the PLA’s analysis and assessments of future urban warfare cite and display the influence of close reading of US doctrine, as well as debates among American specialists. For that reason, the PLA’s outlook on urban warfare could be characterized as relatively consistent with or even imitative of mainstream thinking in the United States,” the pair argues.
This has prompted the PLA to undergo a holistic rejuvenation of their capabilities across intelligence, information, precision strike, close combat, hybridity, and public opinion.
As part of this rejuvenation and encouraged by the obvious failures by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine, the Chinese government has identified the rapid need to improve joint-all domain warfare capabilities bolstered by the increased utilisation of unmanned technologies and SOF teams.
It is expected that the PLA is planning to conduct a significant portion of their urban warfighting capabilities autonomously, while SOF teams conduct counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations to tie down the population.
“The PLA’s avid interest in drones that could become more ‘intelligent’ and autonomous in their operations reflects its belief that US, Russian, and Israeli military operations have already proven the efficacy of drones in urban combat,” the pair notes.
“For instance, in the PLA’s first comprehensive competition among all of its SOF forces in 2013, one of the contests involved “city indoor counterterrorism proficiency” with daytime and night-time scenarios”.
China has further identified the importance of minimising the threat of an armed and determined population, resulting in the creation of additional psychological doctrines to minimise the threat of insurgency and terrorism.
“The red force reportedly concentrated on demolition and breaching and entering buildings; combat methods of ‘psychological warfare to break the enemy’ ; and controlling landing points for aircraft, among other efforts,” the pair argues.
While the PLA have identified their urban shortfalls, it may not be enough to dominate Taiwan with the Taiwanese government already setting the wheels in motion for an insurgency.
Writing for War on the Rocks, senior political scientist Jeffrey Hornung of the RAND Corporation explained that a Chinese victory in Taiwan is far from guaranteed.
Lessons from the citizen resistance in Ukraine and the ability for irregular soldiers to destroy expensive military technology evidence that a Chinese victory over Taiwan is not guaranteed.
“This underestimation of the Ukrainians’ capability and will to fight had disastrous consequences for Russia. The same hubris could bedevil a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. As in Ukraine, national identity could play a factor. An overwhelming number of people in Taiwan see themselves as Taiwanese, distinct from mainland China, which can serve as a powerful motivation to fight,” Hornung argues.
“Training these people into some sort of territorial defence force could help make them lethal. Tactically, in advancing from Taiwan’s western shore to Taipei, an invasion force could encounter numerous insurgents ready to set ambushes and take out vehicles with the types of anti-tank weapons being used in Ukraine.”
The wheels for a Taiwanese insurgency are already in motion.
The realisation among some in Taiwan’s military apparatus that the island nation could no longer convincingly defend itself in the event of a PLA invasion spurred the introduction of the Overall Defence Concept in 2017 by Taiwan’s Admiral Lee Hsi-ming.
“Rather than engage the People’s Liberation Army force-on-force, Taiwan would be better positioned to pursue an asymmetric guerrilla war in which civilians and military forces fight from urban areas, where they could hide and restock supplies. Similarly, the same forces could use guerrilla tactics to defend key choke points like bridges or valleys while leveraging mountains or rivers as obstacles,” Hornung continued.
Indeed, many theorists have observed that the democratisation of high-tech and easy to use weapons have put incredibly destructive powers in the hands of irregular troops. Such accessible capabilities have made even untrained members of citizen militias threats to tank and helicopter teams.
At an operational-strategic level, this has enabled Ukraine’s commanders to use their well-trained regular forces to more effect in recapturing strategic assets.